Printable Version
Pronunciation: he-têr-ah-grê-fi Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. A nonphonetic or inconsistent spelling system: the use of the same letter to convey different sounds (as the C in city and candy) or different letters to express the same sound, as spelling the sound [s] C in city and S in sea. 2. An aberrant or unusual spelling, as m-i-l-c-h for milk or l-y-t-h-e for lithe.

Notes: The spelling system of a language is its orthography, Greek for "correct or true writing". The trueness of writing systems varies greatly and, as we have pointed out before, English orthography is dismally heterographic, to use the adjective for today's Good Word. Be sure to reassure your children, as they learn how to spell English words, that their difficulty is not their fault.

In Play: Heterographically speaking, in other words, English is a world leader: "Speaking of English heterography, I have never understood the purpose of the -ugh in though or thought." Many nations periodically introduce spelling reforms that update the spelling systems of their languages: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Portugal, and Brazil have been adjusting the spelling in their languages at the turn of the 21st century. English, however, is spoken by large populations in several different countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, India, New Zealand, the US, and South Africa), so agreement on any change is highly unlikely.

Word History: Today's Good Word is a fairly recent combining of heteros "different, the other of two" + graph- "write" + ia, a noun suffix. The root graph- has a fascinating family history. The patriarch of this family is PIE gerbh- "to scratch". In the Germanic languages it underwent metathesis, switching the position of the [e] and the [r], leading to English crab, a beast that can deliver an excellent scratch. As the rules of scratching were honed into languages, the same stem produced the stem of grammar. This is a word we will return to someday, to explain how it became glamour! (Right now we have to scratch a note of thanks to Pierre Laberge for suggesting this very, very Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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